WELLS – A properly cooked steak is one of the most popular meals in America, and The Steakhouse serves them up best medium rare. The menu blazons the restaurant’s loyalty to corn-fed “heavy Western beef” rated Choice and Prime by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a superior grade of beef that’s nicely marbled with fat and easy to chew, though it leaves some of us wishing for grass-fed and local.

Too bad grass-fed and local beef is both too expensive and too limited to supply this hugely popular steakhouse.

“Our average summer night will be 800,” said Mark Sibley, who has owned The Steakhouse with his wife, Melissa, for 12 years, and who began as a manager here in 1991. Those summer nights are when the line out the door creates a two-hour wait.

Clearly, most of us are happy to eat conventional beef. One reason is the price: At The Steakhouse, a 14-ounce rib eye is $20.99 and a 6-ounce filet mignon is $18.99. Three sizes of filet mignon – 6-, 9- and 12-ounce – and New York strip sirloin – 8-, 12- and 16-ounce – also give customers many steaks to choose from.

Except for the filet mignon, the steaks are not very thick. The rib eye I ate at my first visit, ordered rare and with a “cool center” as the menu described, was only faintly brown. That left the meat to speak for itself and exposed the absence of much to say. It also left the meat flabby, with no contrast in texture between the exterior and the rare center.

On a second visit, I ordered my steak medium rare, giving fire an opportunity to transform a small New York strip sirloin and a thicker filet mignon into two delicious meals. An excellent pepper grinder on the table and a little ramekin of flavored butter, one night blue cheese, augment the fundamentals of grilled beef.

There are other things to enjoy at The Steakhouse, of course, and far and away the best are the crab cakes ($8.99). Baked instead of fried – which makes possible the construction of a light and not-at-all-bready crab cake – these thick, sweet, tender crab cakes are the second best of all I’ve ever eaten in Maine, and I have tried hundreds of versions. Remoulade made with house-roasted red peppers made a mild and eloquent sauce.

Next best are the barbecued steakhouse baked beans, beefy, tangy and sweet, served in a miniature bean pot that comes to the table flaming hot.

A glass of fruity, deep red Casa Lapostolle Carmenere from Chile ($6.95) went well with the red meat, as did drier La Crema Pinot Noir ($7.95) from California. The simple red wines and straightforward whites on the wine list are augmented by beer, including draft Cole Porter from Atlantic Brewing in Bar Harbor, and cocktails.

Gulf shrimp set on ice in a shell-shaped china dish, with nicely made cocktail sauce ($2.19 each), were “wild caught” and a subject of melancholy contemplation and deep appreciation. The Steakhouse’s supply is certain for this summer at least, whatever happens to shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Mexico because of the oil spill.

“Those are only harvested twice a year, and we brought in enough for the season,” Sibley said.

A big salad, one of 10 sides offered with entrees not listed separately, was mostly iceberg lettuce with sliced cucumber, sliced red onion and wan refrigerated tomatoes. Italian dressing was slightly sharp. Bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar make a plain dressing that’s pretty good with lots of fresh ground pepper. But one salad had a decided refrigerator taste and was pushed away.

Among the two sides you can choose is the house potato; the chunks of potato cooked with cheese, green peppers and onions made a pleasant change from baked or fried. The baked beans are another option. One night’s house vegetable – corn that was described as roasted but had no roasted flavor, mixed with diced red pepper and onion – was OK, while another evening’s broccoli with light hollandaise was better.

Pasta with house tomato sauce held no allure. Sauteed green and red peppers, onions and button mushrooms ($2.79) seemed overcooked and were not browned. Mango chutney made with fresh ground pepper and brandy ($2.99) sounded intriguing.

Salmon ($17.99) was slightly dry despite a slathering of maple and mustard glaze. You can request the fish be less than cooked through, the server told us, but well done is the default temperature. The farm-raised fish tasted bland.

The big menu holds far more entrees, including lobster, than I had a chance to taste, and the fast-moving servers who seem to have every step memorized can no doubt fill you in on what’s best. You might want to listen between the lines – as I failed to do when I opted for a rare steak.

Gargantuan goblets capped with fresh whipped cream hold dessert. Our choice was too big for two people to finish, but the house-made pound cake, raspberries, vanilla ice cream and freshly whipped cream (all desserts are $5) were excellent, however much we left behind.

 

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.